Forward thinking at Fox

Net plans to have episodes ready to show at '09 upfront

Fox is taking another step toward year-round series development with a new strategy that could redefine the upfronts.

The network's entertainment president Kevin Reilly is starting a second round of pilot pickups this month to get a jump on next year's presentation to advertisers. His plan is to get a batch of new shows in production by the fall so Fox can show ad buyers several episodes of the network's new series next May instead of presentations or pilots.

"We're going into next year's upfront with a number of series in production, with multiple episodes in the can," Reilly said.

The move throws down a gauntlet to competitors in the post-WGA strike TV universe where broadcast networks have been looking for new ways to develop their slates.

NBC held an early upfront this month as part of its new development strategy that includes going straight to series on most projects. The network unveiled a 65-week schedule, announcing its new shows but not showing footage as most shows have yet to begin production. By next month, when the upfront buying is slated to begin, NBC plans to give advertisers about seven scripts per show.

Fox will up the ante by giving the advertisers actual produced episodes next May.

"We're slowly opening up for pitches right now," Reilly said. "If I could script my goal, typically you finish buying drama scripts in October. If by then I could have more than half of my slate in production, I'd be thrilled."

Next year's upfronts might also include projects currently in development for next season. Reilly said he's willing to push back programs on his current slate to 2009 to ensure he has plenty of content available to show advertisers.

Network executives — particularly at Fox and NBC — have been endorsing a gradual transition to a year-round development strategy for years. Now the two networks are the first ones to take significant steps in making that a reality. For the past few years, Fox has been experimenting with the traditional broadcast model by introducing different fall and midseason schedules to advertisers at the upfronts and early series launches in the summer.

When told of Reilly's plan, representatives of the ad buying community were highly enthusiastic.

"That, to me, is brilliant," said Shari Anne Brill, vp and director of programming at Carat. "It's a really good idea to be in business all year-round and nurture programming without rushing it. And to have more than one episode of a series to show us would be outstanding."

Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media, agreed.

"It would be great," Adgate said. "There are some instances where the pilot is nothing more than a movie and subsequent episodes aren't as strong. This would give marketers a better idea of whether a show will have legs."

Pilots have been effective sales tools because they don't wear out a show's welcome and disguise any conceptual flaws by virtue of being a shiny first impression of a story.

Reilly is gambling that next year's blocks of episodes will live up to the promise of his shows — rather than prove that less is more.

"Historically, everybody thought if you went into production early, you'd be handicapped from a sales position," Reilly said. "I'm saying the opposite: (Competitors) are going to be late if they wait."